By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Amelia is in the graveyard located in the woods of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s property in North Carolina, where he collects ruined race cars.
The beloved Chevrolet failed Earnhardt in the Daytona 500 and again at Talladega. He thought he’d drive Amelia to another victory in both races — after all, she’d won four times in six restrictor-plate starts over a 13-month period — but he crashed in both superspeedway races this season.
After the Talladega wreck, he retired Amelia and added her to his eclectic graveyard.
So when NASCAR’s most popular driver races Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, it will be in a new Chevy built by Hendrick Motorsports that won’t have a name.
“We’re not going to be naming cars anymore,” Earnhardt said Thursday. “I knew as soon as we did that, it sort of took off and put a lot of pressure on that car and the team. These cars just don’t stick around long enough to get names. You used to race cars for years and years and they would show a personality.
“These days, you only keep a car for maybe a year before it’s unrecognizable or it’s cut out of the herd.”
In fact, Earnhardt believes Amelia probably outlived her worth. In hindsight, he doesn’t think he should have raced her at Daytona or Talladega.
“There are newer ideas and theories and better ways to do things that that car didn’t have,” he said. “We assumed, hey, it was doing so well, why wouldn’t it keep going? It seems like over the offseason there’s so much improvement and gains made by every organization that you can’t afford to rest on what you did the year before.”
While it’s true that a driver is only as good as his car, Earnhardt has proved to excel at restrictor plate races. Of his 26 career Sprint Cup victories, Earnhardt has won 10 times at Daytona and Talladega. He’s the defending race winner here at Daytona, and he won an exhibition race in February. Counting non-points events, Earnhardt has won 11 times at the famed speedway.
He’s done it with an aggressive driving style that he possibly inherited from his late father, Dale Earnhardt, who won 13 points races at Daytona and Talladega before he was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
“You’ve got to get yourself out there and put yourself in some pretty compromising situations that are touch and go,” Earnhardt said. “If you want to go up there and win the race, you’ve got to put yourself in some situations that are really sketchy.
“Sometimes in plate racing it’s as hairy as you can stand. It’s about as much excitement and nerve-wracking anxiety as you can stomach.”
Earnhardt will likely drive that way on Saturday night when he seeks his first victory of the season. He sits 12th in the standings — only behind teammate Chase Elliott among drivers inside the top 16 still looking for a win.
But 12 drivers already have wins this season with 10 races remaining to set the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field. A win should essentially lock a driver into the Chase — unless there are more than 16 winners.
So Earnhardt isn’t very comfortable with his current position, especially since there have been eight different winners in the last eight races. He admitted being frustrated over his May races — he didn’t have a finish higher than 14th — but is encouraged by what speed crew chief Greg Ives has seemed to find.
“Where we are in points is very frustrating,” he said. “It creates a lot of anxiety between me and Greg. I think that we both are not happy with where we are in the points. We are wondering and worrying about trying to make the Chase — it shouldn’t be something that this team is concerned with.
“I think we are way better than where we are.”
He lamented that success came easier in years past. He noted the number of accidents he’s been in is uncharacteristic, but said his team is giving him good cars.
“Hopefully, we just get to Richmond and we don’t have a lot of pressure about trying to make the Chase,” he said. “Hopefully, we can put a string of races together that will give us a good cushion between us and the next guys fighting for those last few spots. Obviously, we need to get a win to put all that to bed, but nothing is guaranteed. If we don’t get a win going into the Chase we are going to have to do well in these next 10 races and just be real consistent.”